SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University softball team came up one step short of its goal in 2014, and Head Coach Margie Knight wants her team to see that goal every day, so when the time comes, there is no worries, no fear, just the expectation that this is where they should be, and the program's first national championship is the only thing they are thinking about.
Knight has instructed her players to put the phrase, "We will win the national championship" somewhere that they will see it every day. Knight has it on her cell phone, so each time she turns it on, it's right there.
"When I first got here, we certainly had some talented teams and we wanted to win the national championship, and that's always been the goal, but we didn't talk about it," said Knight, now entering her 19th season at the helm of the program, and having made eight trips to the national championship. "Then, when it got really close, we got nervous about the whole thing."
Last season, the Sea Gulls were defeated in the Capital Athletic Conference championship, and following the game, the players were upset about the loss. Knight asked, 'What is our goal?' One player responded, 'To get to the national championship.' Knight looked at her, the response changed quickly. 'To win the national championship!'
From that point forward, the team discussed where they were headed, and what the goal was, and that open communication made the team's appearance in the championship less scary and more like any other game on the way to the goal.
The Sea Gulls are scheduled to open the season this weekend with the knowledge that each game is important, but looking every day at what the ultimate goal truly is.
Senior Rachel Johnson will anchor a pitching staff that was one of the best in the nation in 2014, and she was a big reason why, ranking second in the nation in victories and fourth in strikeouts along with a 1.35 ERA and 12 shutouts.
Johnson, who was a first-team All-American last season, has been one of the best in the country over the past two years, and she wants a chance to help her team to its first national championship.
"She's extremely competitive and she said to me, 'I want to be on the mound when we win the national championship' and that's one of her goals," Knight said. "That's pretty lofty, but if you set goals like 'I want to be on the mound when we go over .500,' that's exactly what you're going to get."
Johnson will see junior transfer Annah Brittingham step in and help in the circle. The local product, from Pocomoke City, Maryland, played at the Division I level for two seasons, appearing in 75 games and starting 48, before returning home for this season.
"We've always had some local kids and I keep recruiting around here and these players keep finding us because, one, Salisbury is a great university; and two, this is a hotbed for softball and players don't want to leave home," Knight said. "It builds a great fan base and we get a lot of alumni who come back and watch because they're still local."
The infield will be one of the deepest for the Sea Gulls, returning four of the five starters from a year ago. Catcher Rebecca Hoey will be the anchor to the infield, returning behind the plate for her second year as the starting backstop.
During her junior year, she not only helped the pitching staff to a top ERA, but was also one of the best players in the CAC offensively ranking in the top 10 in home runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
"Rachel and Rebecca have a great relationship away from the softball field, they're great friends, and that really is nice," Knight said. "They think along the same lines and I think Becca helps keep Rachel in the game, and Rachel helps Becca behind the plate.
"Becca and Annah are forming a great battery relationship, as well."
Sebbane, a second-team All-Region pick, and Dorsey, a first-team All-American, were mainstays in the middle of the Salisbury lineup last season. Sebbane batted .355 last year, with 18 extra-base hits and 46 runs driven in, while Dorsey was one of the most dangerous hitters in the NCAA, finishing with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs, both of which were among the top 10 nationally, to earn first-team All-American honors.
On the right side of the infield, junior Molly Simpson returns for her second year at second base, having helped turn four double plays while exceling offensively, batting .387. Her efforts in the NCAA Salisbury, Maryland Regional led to her being honored as the Most Outstanding Player of the event.
Knight has already seen improvement out of Sebbane, who has made a few adjustments defensively, Dorsey, who has gotten smoother and more vocal, and Simpson, who is a step quicker on the right side.
"We've had some great infields," Knight said. "But this might be one of the best we've ever been able to put on the field."
The only starting infielder not returning in uniform is first baseman Harley Hill, who will be part of the coaching staff, but her position will be in good hands.
"Paige has one of the best sticks in the country – not just on this team – so she'll be in the lineup somewhere," Knight said. "Will she be at first? I think so, but Kristen is really giving her a run for her money."
Knussman spent her sophomore year as the designated player, ranking sixth in the country with a .516 batting average, and was in the top 20 nationally in three other statistical categories.
Freshman Andie McGregor has spent much of the preseason working at third base, but Knight sees her abilities translating to all of the infield positions, being a great utility player for the Sea Gulls.
Spadin played in all 49 games a year ago – one of five returners that pulled that feat – and led the team in sacrifice hits, while Malgieri played in 47 games, and each had an outfield assist last season.
The returners on the Salisbury defense, throughout the field, led to the Sea Gulls to be the best defensive team in the country in 2014, with a team field percentage of .983.
"Caitlin Lake has made some big improvements, and she's a pretty powerful young woman," Knight said.
The addition of eight freshmen to the roster has made this year's version of the Sea Gulls one of the deepest in recent history.
The slate of games the Sea Gulls face will, as usual, prepare the team for the toughest of postseason tests. Salisbury has a schedule loaded with tough competition within the Capital Athletic Conference, as well as in non-conference play.
The Sea Gulls will take on No. 10 Virginia Wesleyan College on March 10, and No. 23 DePauw University on March 22 along with some strong regional competition not currently in the rankings, including Lynchburg College, Washington (Md.) College and others.
Once into the thick of the CAC schedule, Salisbury will be challenged by No. 5 Christopher Newport University, along with perennial contenders from the University of Mary Washington, York College of Pennsylvania, and Frostburg State University.
Salisbury will face off with Christopher Newport for the first of what could be numerous showdowns, on April 4, when the Gulls host a doubleheader against the Captains at the SU Softball Field. The teams met six times last year, with Christopher Newport clipping the Gulls in the CAC championship, ending Salisbury's run of 17 years in a row with the title. But Salisbury would rebound, defeating the Captains in the NCAA Super Regional to advance to the NCAA Championship.
After a slew of weather issues, the Sea Gulls open the season on Sunday, March 8 hosting The College of New Jersey and the State University of New York at Cortland, and while they will look at each game individually, they will see that national championship in their sights every day. Knight has made sure of it.